Academics fear loss of sector research under OfS regime

Unclear whether new regulator will maintain programme that informs English higher education policy

January 24, 2018
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Looking ahead? a consultation document states only that the OfS will use ‘horizon scanning’ and ‘thematic reviews’ in terms of research

Academics have raised concerns about whether important research that the Higher Education Funding Council for England conducts into universities and higher education policy will continue under the country’s new regulatory structure.

One observer questioned whether the new regulator, the Office for Students, would be able to do its job without such information.

Hefce currently spends about £860,000 a year on externally commissioned research and evaluation reports, covering topics such as funding and equality of access, as well as evaluation of its own funding programmes. It also conducts a significant amount of research internally, which the funding council said it was “not possible to cost”.

It is not yet clear what will happen to these streams of works when Hefce ceases to exist and passes many of its responsibilities to the OfS in April. The OfS said that the “exact detail” of its operations was yet to be determined.

A consultation document on the role of the OfS has few mentions of research that it will carry out or commission, stating only that the OfS will use “horizon scanning” to identify themes within the sector that it wants to explore, as well as use “thematic reviews” to probe issues in more detail. The only mention of commissioned research comes in the area of student transfers.

Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University, said there was a “clear gap” for research in the regulatory structure as it stands.

“If the OfS is going to do its work as a regulator effectively then it is clearly going to need this kind of research,” he said. “It is very much positioned as not the normal thing [OfS] would do.

“It is clear that is of a different order to what Hefce currently does and that is going to be a change.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that much of Hefce’s research was “very top quality” and “important”, highlighting the work the council has done around how students’ schooling backgrounds affects their degree classification, and studies on the costs of delivering courses, which are used by universities to help calculate costs and set tuition fees.

“The OfS is going to have a much smaller budget so it is hard to think they will spend a similar amount on research,” Mr Hillman said. “It does worry me.”

The £860,000 figure does not include the cost of the Longitudinal Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, conducted by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on Hefce’s behalf.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said that the “exact detail” of the OfS’ operations is still being determined.

“There are a number of issues where the OfS is well placed to conduct or commission research, and we will be carefully considering how best to do this as we develop our strategy and programme of work,” she said.

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